How did Paul reach such a society? He did so in a way that deliberately went against all of the advice modern-day church growth experts would give. He preached the Gospel, even refusing to use words of eloquent wisdom as he did so. He preached a message that was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” And, to make matters worse, he did so in a way that was simple and plain. Why would he adopt such a weak and foolish church-growth strategy?
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, ESV
When reading a blog post or article that begins with a Scripture quote, we are often tempted to skip past the Scripture or skim over it lightly to get to the real beginning of the article. Please don’t do that here. Please take a minute to go back and read carefully what is written in God’s Word above by the Apostle Paul.
And now, a question: If a church wishes to reach an increasingly pagan, irreligious, distracted and commercialized culture, what should they do? To personalize the question: If you want to reach people for Christ who are not really interested in the message of the Gospel – in Christ and the cross – what should you do?
Contemporary Americans have often been accused of presentism, an “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes.” C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” and applied it to Great Britain in the 1950’s, so we know this is neither a new nor a uniquely American phenomenon. Part of what presentism, or chronologinal snobbery, blinds us to is the wisdom of the past, the reality that others have faced the same challenges we have faced and have found good ways to overcome them.
The Apostle Paul preached the Gospel to a culture that was very pagan, immoral, sexually perverse, multicultural, commercialized, power-hungry and driven to distraction by entertainment. Does that sound familiar?
No one in first-century Corinth was looking for Jesus, wanting to hear a message about a crucified Jewish rabbi, a rejected would-be Messiah. It seemed irrelevant. It didn’t connect to anything that the important people of the day were discussing or pursuing.
How did Paul reach such a society? He did so in a way that deliberately went against all of the advice modern-day church growth experts would give. He preached the Gospel, even refusing to use words of eloquent wisdom as he did so. He preached a message that was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” And, to make matters worse, he did so in a way that was simple and plain.
Why would he adopt such a weak and foolish church-growth strategy? Paul was an educated man, learned in the wisdom of the Greeks in Tarsus and in the scholarship of the Jews in Jerusalem. Was he just stubborn, old-fashioned? No. Paul was actually willing to be very flexible and to set aside personal preferences in order to advance the Gospel. He says later in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 –
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
So, what gives? How could the man who was willing to “become all things to all people” have so stubbornly refused to appeal to Jews and Greeks on the basis of things they valued, things they understood? Doesn’t it seem like chapter 1 and chapter 9 contradict each other? Was Paul confused? Was he willing to adapt to his audience or wasn’t he? Was he flexible or inflexible?
Paul was willing to make himself “a servant to all,” but he would not do anything to empty the cross of its power. He was willing to “become all things to all people,” but he knows that only “the word of the cross” is “the power of God.” In other words, Paul is very willing and even eager to set himself aside, because he is not anyone’s Savior. But he cannot set Christ aside or make anything other than the cross central to his ministry, because Christ alone is able to save and He saves through the message of the cross alone.
It’s no secret that we live in a culture where the Gospel is in decline. A quick survey of the church landscape in America will also clearly show that we live in an era of celebrity pastors and gimmicky church-growth techniques. In a culture where the Gospel is seemingly ever more and more irrelevant, the church’s answer has been best-selling books that peddle an alternative “Gospel,” megalomaniac pastors who promote themselves, and silly (or extravagant) gimmicks to get lots of people to come to church. But none of this is leading to real Gospel growth in our culture.
On the other hand, Paul’s day was one in which he could say of the gospel that “indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing.” (Col. 1:6) When Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica, the men of the city said about them, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”
Less than 25 years after his conversion and less than 10 years after his first missionary journey, Paul had to set his sights on Spain because the whole Eastern Mediterranean world had heard the Gospel (see Romans 15). The early church did this without church buildings, rock concerts, give-aways, best-selling books or anything but a simple, sincere, life-changing Gospel witness.
Well, that was then and this is now, right? Our world is more advanced, more sophisticated, more cynical, right? No. If we’re willing to look beyond our chronological snobbery, we will see that the Gospel is still the power of God for salvation. Jesus still saves lost sinners.
The most powerful way of reaching people for Christ is still the open and sincere proclamation of the Gospel backed up by the reality of a life transformed by Christ’s redeeming love. The Gospel is never out-of-fashion because it was never in-fashion to begin with.
Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.